Tag Archives: Christian

Cussing Christians and Creativity – an interview with Jon Guerra of Milano

8 Nov

Here’s the deal. Last Friday I reviewed Milano‘s fabulous new eP, Gloria. In the review I mentioned that a) the third track dropped the f-bomb and b) I’d have an interview with lead singer Jon Guerra. Here is that interview, which we conducted via an email exchange. I actually had a conversation with him outside of the interview to discuss how to present the material. Obviously we were always going to talk about his choice of words, and I couldn’t decide whether to censor the writing with ***s or just write them as they stand.

That discussion with Guerra was very insightful to the difference between sung/aural mediums versus the written word. The word just stares you down, hard and unflinching. The spoken or sung word passes by and, though it has an impact, is only one part of a broader canvas. Thus, in some ways, the audible version is oftentimes less startling, though I would say I think it depends on its usage. To read such words in a non-specific context may be more arresting than to hear them sung in a similar way, but to hear them directed at an individual person in a demeaning way, especially a child, is to me more of an issue. Anyway, I listened to Jon and went with his suggestion that for the benefit of discussion and drawing people in, rather than risking their leaving offended, I have used the ol’ **s to blank out words. Without further ado, meet Jon Guerra:

Congratulations on the release of Gloria – what’s the response been like from fans and press so far?

Response has been phenomenal from fans and press alike. It’s a marvelous thing to live in a day and age where you can record something in a dingy makeshift basement studio and have it turn out sounding ok!

So what’s your day job? Or are you a full time musician?

I actually do get to do this full-time. There is a church in Chicago called The Line that supports me full-time to write, record, and perform in Milano. The idea is this: often times, when a musician is hired by a church, his or her time is monopolized with picking songs for services, youth group meetings, church videos, picnics, bake-offs etc. All that is just fine. The negative side to that model is this: they no longer have time or energy for writing/recording/performing in the music scene in their city. They become staff members and not artists. The Line is a church that is trying to flip that model on its head. All Christians are to be redeemed versions of whatever it is they are – business men, baristas, actors, electricians, and musicians. What if the church actually supported artists to do what they were meant to do? The Line is trying to answer that question, and a full-time salary for me is their first (and brilliant, might I add!!) attempt. I’m gladly the first guinea pig.

Let’s just get into this then: the third track on the EP, “So What?!”, is infectious, epic and features several instances of “p**sed off” and one “f**ked up”. How intentional was the lyrical choice, the musical setting and what are your intentions with using these words?

Everything is intentional, but not intentionally contentious. I do what I think is right for the song. In no way was it an attempt to “push boundaries of conservative evangelical dogma” or something like that. I have some fights to pick and that sure as hell won’t be one of them. If it’s upsetting to people, then turn it off and listen to something else….like any of the other 7 songs we’ve released. My intention was to deliver something true and meaningful. Those lyrics were the best option to me.

OK, so you’re not trying to pick a fight or prove a point. At the same time, it’s stark enough to demand attention, and clearly you believe there are times that strong language is appropriate. It’s contextual. Do you think that Christian culture has ‘churchified’ language? Have we lost some of the appropriate saltiness that we see in Isaiah’s “filthy rags” statement?

I think the issue is deeper than the sterilization of our vocabulary. Language is a means, a vehicle. In a narrow sense, perhaps some communities could use a little more of the prophet’s and psalmist’s blood and guts. But teaching the preacher to cuss isn’t the solution. Not to be “that guy” but Aristotle says the aim of education is to cause the pupil to like and dislike what he ought, or something like that. Augustine and Edwards pound these ideas into magnificent theological treatises. It’s a travesty that some of us don’t marvel at the sight of a waterfall, or sunrise – but it’s equally appalling, if not more, that we don’t recognize the terror of what is inside every one of us. Art can teach us what to love and what to hate in a way that does justice to the inherent loveliness or hatefulness of an object. The problem isn’t that our language is too offensive, but that it’s not offensive enough!

Anyone who’s been the victim of physical or sexual abuse has no problem with the “F” bomb when you say that physical and sexual abuse is f**ked up. In fact, they may resent the use of the language not for it’s impropriety but for it’s disservice. They know that only the greatest poets could describe and condemn physical or sexual abuse with the appropriate vitriol. Similarly, to say that “our praise and delight in beautiful things is far too shallow” would be a stunning understatement. In fact, that may be the core of this issue. If we understood the beauty and praiseworthiness of certain things, we would spare no dignity in condemning that which desecrates it. “So What?!” is meant to be a bit of a playful tune. To say that “Everyone in this room is f**ked up” is a playful way of talking about something far deeper. I just didn’t have a paragraph to get into it…till now!

How have people been responding to this, both within your church, the Christian culture at large and people at your shows?

I can’t really speak to the Christian Culture at large – as far as I know, no one really cares about us “at large” haha. People at shows generally seem to have a good time. There was this one time though – there was an older gentleman sitting in the back  – maybe 70 yrs old. He came up to me and asked me why my lyrics were so depressing. I told him in accented broken English that I didn’t know what he was talking about and that he must have mistaken me for someone else, but that I was looking for a man by the name of Baby Face Burke and he sure looked a heck of a lot like him.

People at my church are incredibly supportive. I get to perform a lot of my songs at church on Sunday mornings as a part of our liturgy, so they’ve had some time to get used to it.

It’s pretty obvious that you and your bandmates have been gifted musically, and you’re pushing your creativity hard. What’s your perspective on the creative arts and how that impacts you as a Christian, and how following Jesus should impact your creativity?

I think my perspective as a Christian influences my art more than the other way around. I live in a city where people eat, sleep and crap their work, their art. The cultures of expertise in Chicago really are astounding. People in that tribe have a unique set of motivations, struggles, idols etc. For many of us, art is life or death, work is the end-all be-all of our existence. Not unlike Harold Abrams in Chariots of Fire who gets “10 seconds to justify his existence.” (not sure if that’s the exact quote or not). As a Christian I believe we go on forever. I’ll be writing music long after I’m dead. The urgency comes from a different place. The drama, the pageantry, the successes and failures all mean something different because fundamentally, I believe that I am free. I am free to fail or succeed or do whatever with my music precisely because the weight of my existence isn’t contingent on it. At least that’s how it should work. I’m certainly still in process.

From what I can tell, it might not be long before the culture at large is much more aware of Guerra and Milano. Check out their eP, Gloria, on iTunes now.

Advertisements

Milano – Gloria EP – Review

5 Nov

Band: Milano
Album: Gloria EP
Credits: Written and performed by Milano/ Recorded & Engineered by Milano, Alan Hackert and Brantley Vosler/ Mixed by Alan Hackert and Milano/ Produced by Milano. All in their basement.

I first heard about Jon Guerra and his merry band of musicians a year ago. On a return visit to the UK, an old friend of mine gifted me with a copy of Milano‘s Zombie World EP. If a bunch of socially conscious gypsy rockers decided to write show tunes, then that EP would be central to the production. The songs were catchy, convicting and adventurous. This year sees the release of a second EP, Gloria, and listeners are in for a treat and a challenge. Let me tell you up front, Gloria might be the freshest thing I’ve heard all year; chock full of melody, clever lyrics, riffs, musical diversity (Gypsy Prog Prophets is a moniker they’ve recently earned) both stylistically and instrumentally – it’s all here. You need to go and listen.

And in the midst of it, this Jesus loving guy drops an f-bomb.

Some people maybe just left the site, never to return. I mean, how could I recommend such an anomaly of nature right? Because everyone knows one thing for sure: Christian’s shouldn’t cuss. Sadly, the context of the aforementioned f-bomb is pretty important to its use. But too late. Only you brave souls left reading get to know that an interview with Mr. Guerra is coming very soon to the blog, and we’ll be talking Christ, culture and cussing. Should be a blast, eh?

Whilst Zombie World had as its core issues of consumerism portrayed in the metaphorical undead, Gloria has a focus on a future culmination rather than present distress. Opening with the fist pumping “A Day Is Gonna Come”, Guerra displays a growing clarity and range in his vocal which on the previous recording had some of the wildness of Jeff Buckley’s live performances, but is now displaying greater control and coherence.

“Gloria”, the title track, is all exultant joy, infectiously drawing us into the narratives of lives encountering the majesty and glory of God. Dripping luscious harmonies, rich string parts and stadium sized rock soundscapes, this is music on a grand and epic scale, the kind that makes you sing along until singing is no longer possible.

Then the crazy gypsy vibe arrives in full force, but these gypsies have Eastern European flair to their music as “So What?!” comes bounding out from the speakers. Guerra cites Taraf de Haidouks as the band that started the gypsy influence for him. As if to highlight the moment as dramatically as possible, Milano take this wild and crazy dance into a loungey breakdown as Guerra croons, “If you’re mouth is running close it shut/ I may only say this once/ So listen up/ Everyone in this room is f**ked up/ Everyone is…/Everyone is…” I haven’t had the chance to talk with Jon about it yet, however, from the musical construction, this was no off-the-cuff moment, but instead an intentional declaration of what is really true. Without Jesus, we’re all a mess.

To break us from the shock of realization comes the dynamic “Come On, Come On” which begins sparsely but soon drops a firm beat and bass. The chorus has the zombie sway of their former EP and delivers a little extra aggression to the mix. These songs are going to connect with diverse audiences and surely raise the bar on the level of excellence Christians should aim for in any creative endeavor.

To end things comes the beautiful “A Holy Song” where strings, banjos and more emerge to lead us into the climax of a dazzling display of artistry, juxtaposing with this lyrics that speak to judgment, betrayal and more; though not surreal, the lyrics are not always clear in their meaning drawing you into closer examination and, personally, self-examination. It just goes to show that sometimes beauty is not comfortable, nor should it be.

Expect to see this on my list of highlights of the year, and consider getting lost in Milano yourself.

Come back on Monday for an interview with singer/songwriter Jon Guerra.